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America's Principal, for a Day

It can be nerve-wracking when the leader of the free world comes to check out your school. TC's Mary Skipper doesn't rattle easily.
By Joe Levine

“I wanted to come to TechBoston so the rest of America can see how it’s done. You guys are a model for what’s happening all across the country. And obviously at the helm is Mary Skipper, who is doing unbelievable work. Love ya, Skip!”

They were words every high school principal longs to hear – but uttered by President Barack Obama, they will echo in Mary Skipper’s memory for the rest of her life.

Flanked by philanthropist Melinda Gates and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the President spoke in the TechBoston Academy (TBA) gym on a warm Tuesday in early March. His remarks focused on to two converging priorities – education and the federal budget.

“It used to be that we weren’t sure what worked to help struggling students,” Obama said. Some said it was a matter of money; others thought that kids in low-income neighborhoods like Dorchester, Massachusetts, where TBA has defied the odds, “just can’t learn, or they’ve got too many disadvantages.” But now there’s a growing consensus that “what’s needed is higher standards and higher expectations; more time in the classroom and greater focus on subjects like math and science;” and “outstanding teachers and leaders like Skip. And all of those ingredients are present here at TechBoston.”

TBA is a pilot school, meaning it is part of the Boston public school system but has special dispensation to hire its own teachers, choose its own curriculum, set longer hours and even hold classes during the summer. Skipper, a petite blond-haired woman of 43 who is currently a doctoral student in Teachers College’s Urban Education Leadership Program, created the school in 2002, four years after she and a colleague, Felicia Vargas, had built a special unit within Boston Public Schools dedicated to introducing new advanced technology courses in the district. The school launch nearly foundered when the city faced a sudden budget crisis, but Skipper persuaded then-Boston Superintendent Thomas Payzant that unless TBA opened that year, a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would be lost. By then it was May, and the city’s graduating middle school students were all committed to other schools. So Skipper – who, on top of everything else, was being treated for breast cancer – sent a team around to every middle school in the city to recruit students for the technology-focused school’s inaugural class. By fall, she had sufficient enrollment to open TBA’s doors.

“Mary never loses it,” says Vargas, who now directs the technology-focused unit she and Skipper created. “She has this very calm demeanor – she’s able to process and to be analytical, and because she’s not getting hysterical, you have to dial yourself down, too. I think that’s part of why she can see possibilities that others don’t see, and why people believe in her. Four years ago, she asked me to help her organize  a technology conference for a thousand students at the Boston Convention Center. Run by TechBoston Academy students. I just nodded and said, right, of course.” She laughs. “You just sort of believe and achieve with her.”

Over the past nine years, with a student population that is almost entirely eligible for free and reduced lunch, TechBoston Academy has emerged as one of the top-performing schools in the city, even as it brought a failing neighborhood middle school under its aegis. TBA’s graduation rate is nearly 20 percent higher than the citywide average. Last year, 94 percent of the senior class headed off to college – most of them the first in their families to do so.

The school’s success rests on three things, Skipper says. “First, we have quality teachers, many of whom have multiple certification, including in content, special ed, ELL and technology. They do peer observations with one another, and they’re committed to lifelong learning.” Second, she says, is TBA’s autonomy over its own curriculum, which includes interdisciplinary projects and certification in software programs such as Microsoft Office, Adobe Products and Cisco Networking. “Basically, every year, I can look at my budget and do what’s necessary to meet the needs of my students.”

And third is the school’s focus on technology and innovation. It almost goes without saying that TBA provides every student with a laptop computer and the classrooms are equipped with smart-boards.

“In this digital age, this generation takes in the bulk of its information through some form of technological media,” Skipper says. “It’s no longer as simple as getting up and talking to them for forty-five minutes. You’ve got to meet them on their level.”

But the school also boasts a consulting group that hires students out to do real-world work, such as building Websites for local businesses, and there’s also a “job shadow” program so that students can see what an engineer does, or a biomedical technician or a computer scientist.

“I’ll never forget taking a group of kids to a business in a fancy high rise building,” Skipper says. “The conference room looked out over the city, and there was this beautiful mahogany table. The CEO talked to us for a while. And the kids actually said afterwards, so this connects how, if I go to school, I can have that mahogany table and look out on that view.”

In visiting TBA, the President seemed intent on delivering the same message.  He visited two classes – biotechnology and AP government – fielding questions and engaging students in the latter in some spirited back-and-forth about constitutional law.

“That’s a little bit intimidating, to be put on the spot by the President, but the kids really stayed with it,” Skipper says proudly.

Just before entering the gym, Obama made a surprise detour to the cafeteria, where an overflow crowd of students had gathered to watch him on satellite TV. The students had been prepped by a Boston police officer to keep order if “one of the guests” were to make a surprise appearance – but they still whooped and crowded around the President, who shook everyone by the hand, sometimes twice or three times. He seemed just a bit smaller in real life, his hair more noticeably sprinkled with gray, but also more relaxed and cheerful. Several girls and not a few boys were overheard afterward saying in breathless tones that they had touched him. Then he went out on the gym floor and told the assembled students that, with even factory jobs nowadays requiring a high degree of technical skill, “You can’t even think about dropping out.” He promised to fight cuts in education spending, “because there’s nothing responsible about cutting back our investment in these young people.” Finally, noting that admission to TechBoston Academy is determined by lottery, Obama said, “That can’t be the system of education we settle for in America. This is a place where everyone gets the chance to succeed, where everybody should have a chance to make it. The motto of this school is, ‘We rise and fall together.’ Well, that is true of America as well.”

For Mary Skipper, the President’s visit and the recognition he accorded her school were dream moments – but moments only. By the next day, it was back to work – both in her job, where she is focused on bringing the middle school over to her building this coming fall, and in her own studies at TC. Working with Professor Carolyn Riehl, she is writing a dissertation on systems-focused leadership within urban school districts, which involves promoting collaborations between high-achieving schools and under-performing schools using a conceptual model with fiscal incentives and strict accountability standards.  Ultimately, she hopes to be a superintendent herself – not in a big city (through TC, she spent a summer in Miami interning with schools chief Rudy Crew), but in a district with perhaps 50,000 students, where she can still focus on instructional issues rather than politics.
Still, in the moments after the Obama cavalcade had pulled away from TBA, Skipper stood with her husband, Peter – a religion teacher at Boston College High School -- and relived the highlights of the day. Peter Skipper groused that he had just lost the mantle of “Skip” among their colleagues and friends – but he was beaming from ear to ear.

For Mary Skipper, two things stood out about the President’s visit.

“It was so great that he talked about our motto,” she said. “He signed a banner that we’re going to hang up in the gym. But I think what really struck me was that he said to the kids, over and over again, I’m proud of you. That just gets inside your heart and mind and stays with you forever.”


Published Thursday, Mar. 10, 2011


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